Mini Grey interviewed by Joanna Carey
When Mini Grey opens the door of her Oxford home, she’s holding a white plastic egg-shaped thing. A baby alarm – Herb, who’s just one year old, is having his afternoon nap. It’s a sunny day, so we sit in the garden, with the egg on the table between us, and it gurgles contentedly as we talk.
It just so happens that Mini Grey’s first picture book was about an egg. Not a contented, nest-loving egg, but an over-ambitious egg that wants to fly.
The publication of Egg Drop in 2002 was early evidence of Grey’s uncompromising originality. It’s a cautionary tale about the foolishness of doing things for which you are not fully equipped. Determined to fly, the impatient egg climbs to the top of a very high tower. And falls.
Swooping from the sublime to the ridiculous, and finding time along the way to reflect on the uplifting aspects of aeronautical engineering, with special reference to Bernoulli’s principle, Egg Drop appeals, in different ways, at all levels of understanding. It was a daring debut, and Grey is quick to acknowledge the help she had from her editor who, in view of the story’s alarming trajectory, advised her to find a ‘safe’ place to start, hence the charming farmyard scene.
The broken egg is last seen sunny side up on a plate, smiling and unaware of the evil intentions of the nearby knife and fork. ‘It took a long time to get that smile just right’ says Grey. She’s unrepentant about the sad ending – ‘that’s how life is – things do get eaten, dropped and broken. I just tell the stories the best way I can.’
Five years on, she has a diverse clutch of successful picture books to her name, and in June she won the Kate Greenaway medal for illustration with The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon. She’s won other awards, but ‘this one is the stuff of daydreams, because it doesn’t specify an age group. Picture books shouldn’t be confined to a narrow range of readers. The important thing about picture books is the way that words and pictures work together as a double act, each doing a different job, sometimes telling a different story, but you need them both to tell the whole story. And even the very youngest children are expert readers of pictures so picture books allow you to put across very complex ideas that would otherwise take a huge number of words to explain.’
Although Mini Grey is now a full-time illustrator, she didn’t exactly rush into it – instead she has zig-zagged creatively across a variety of jobs and educational opportunities. She’s fascinated by the learning process, she talks with enthusiasm about her teachers – from the nuns who taught her physics at her convent school in Slough, to the professor under whom she studied illustration at Brighton University. ‘I just love learning new things.’
Mini Grey was born in the mid-sixties, and named after the car in which, rather astonishingly, her birth took place – (I didn’t get the full story, but I gather they managed to pull over in time). Much of her childhood was spent drawing, painting and making things and she naturally gravitated towards art school, but ‘once there, although I loved the art history, and the life drawing, the approach to painting was too conceptual. I felt I wanted something with a bit more content. Sounds rather lofty doesn’t it? But I needed something different.’ So, while she continued to draw and paint, she went to London and did an English degree at UCL (this would explain why she’s so terrifyingly well read) and while there, she got involved with the nearby Bloomsbury Theatre. ‘There was a sign – “Carpenters Wanted. No Experience Necessary” – soon I was learning to use a circular saw, making joints and helping to build sets. And then designing them.’ After graduating, she joined the Motley Theatre Design Course which in those days was based at the Almeida Theatre in Islington. ‘It was great, and I specially liked the model-making.’ As a designer, she worked at a number of theatres, including the Gate in Notting Hill, and she ended up with Theatre in Education, taking shows round schools in East London – ‘which I really loved, but money was a problem.’ So having enjoyed the contact with school-children, she trained to be a teacher, and got a job in a London primary school. This was a real turning point. ‘That school was where I met picture books! And I realized their power, their potential, their flexibility, and their relevance in the classroom.’ So which books does she particularly remember? ‘Well, so many! Changes, for example, by Anthony Browne, which gives such insight into a child’s perception of the upheavals in family life – all in pictures, it was a marvel. And his Piggybook. And the Ahlbergs – Burglar Bill!, and anything by Raymond Briggs. And Babette Cole. And the American, Lane Smith, and lots of others. It was amazing how many of those books linked up with lessons – science, maths, cooking – just about everything. But, she adds wistfully, ‘that was when teachers had a bit more freedom, before the National Curriculum.’
Those books were a revelation. Still drawing and painting, and frequently using those skills for school worksheets, she was inspired to enrol at Brighton University to study sequential design/illustration. It was a part-time course, so she continued to teach but had to put on hold some of her other educational activities, in particular the welding class she was attending in Wandsworth. Welding?? ‘Yes,’ she says almost apologetically, ‘I’ve always wanted to master everything.’
At Brighton she was taught by the illustrator John Vernon Lord. His course, he tells me, involved ‘the study and practice of the sequencing of images, involving the need to understand the relationships that well organized consecutive images can have on one another, and the properties of composition that aid a successful sequence.’ This was perfect. Everything came together, Lord was an inspiration – ‘he was the archetypal professor, so tremendously learned.’ One project he set her was to make a pop-up version of the third book of Gulliver’s Travels, which she shows me. It’s a very beautiful, intricate thing. The pop-ups are extraordinarily inventive – their ingenious construction every bit as robust as the humour – it took a year to build. As he tells me later, Lord remembers it well – Grey was clearly a star pupil, and he recalls with awe her ‘deep knowledge of Swift’s masterpiece – I had to read it again and again to keep up with her.’
At this point the egg on the table wakes up, and Herb appears with his dad. They set off for a walk, and Grey shows me her studio, and her sketchbooks – ‘Well, scrapbooks really – they’re full of drawings, doodles, diagrams, ideas, cuttings, photos – all sorts of ephemera.’ As for materials, she uses ‘4B pencils, and coloured pencils for scribbly areas, and dip pens. For colour it’s Dr Martin’s Radiant Watercolours in bottles. And Quink Ink. And Bleach. Some household emulsion, soft pointy brushes – and accidental coffee.’ The computer is an integral part of the process, particularly when it comes to ‘pulling everything together – it has replaced photocopying, scissors and glue.’ She prefers to draw and colour by hand, but often scans in real-life objects – like tomatoes and biscuits (‘but you have to wrap them in cling film first’). Her studio shelves are tightly packed with regiments of wind-up toys, stuffed animals, mysterious gadgets, constructions, mechanical models and puppets – (puppet making is another of her skills). She’s clearly an obsessive collector. ‘I know, it’s dreadful isn’t it? I keep everything. It’s the same in my illustrations – there’s always far too much. So anal!’
On her desk is her next book – a sequel to Traction Man is Here. Traction man is a toy, a commando-style action figure with chiselled features who, against a background of everyday suburban life, is constantly engaged in urgent acts of heroism, often under water in the kitchen sink. With cunning manipulation of perspective, and multiple viewpoints, Grey seamlessly brings real life together with the imaginative world of a child’s fantasy, lacing it with as much social satire as you care to read into it.
Several of her books have a culinary background, and knives, forks, scissors and all kinds of sharp pointy things make frequent appearances. ‘Yes I know – I think I’ve got quite a vicious streak’ she says, with a benign smile. ‘I like a little danger.’
There’s a sinister gang of ‘sharp and shady’ knives and forks in The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon – a complex, witty and beautifully structured roller-coaster of a story that has a real sense of theatre. It picks up where Hey-Diddle-Diddle leaves off, with the eponymous lovers on the run in 1930s New York.
The economy of the text is in subtle contrast to the extravagance of the illustrations – a kaleidoscopic mixture of bold close-ups, huge crowd scenes, richly imagined interiors and wide vistas of cinematic breadth. Here and there Grey zooms in on the action providing rewarding nuggets of narrative detail. Muted colours and subtle textures evoke the slightly tarnished glamour of the 1930s, and scanned-in photographic images add further authenticity. ‘I love the research – you learn so much – for this I traipsed round countless antique/flea markets and libraries; the Bethnal Green Toy Museum, and the V&A to look at the pottery. Money was important, so I had to get that right, and I also found the story behind the Liberty Head Dollar.’
The Dish and the Spoon are most tenderly drawn – the eloquence of their body language is unforgettable, funny, romantic and crazily inventive. With its subtle symbolism, its outrageous humour, its optimism and its endless vitality, this is indeed one of the most accomplished picture books of recent years, and, with all the visual asides and sophisticated references, it offers new delights with every reading.
So what next? Apart from forthcoming books (and an imminent tour of the US, where she’s increasingly popular), has she got plans for learning yet more skills? Has the arrival of a baby had an impact on her work? ‘Yes, time is the problem. I no longer go to life drawing-classes, or print-making, and (unless there’s a national emergency), I no longer work beyond 10 pm, so there’s no time, alas, for learning new things just now. But if there was, I’d like to make a series of pottery gravy boats. I made a papier-mâché planet Earth as a lampshade for Herb’s room, and it would be good to make a Moon and some planets.
In fact, I’d like to make an orrery.’
An orrery??? – back home I google this – it’s a ‘mechanical device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the solar system in heliocentric model. It is driven by a large clockwork mechanism, with the sun at the centre and a planet at the end of each of its arms.’ Well… that shouldn’t be too difficult. There could even be an opportunity for a little welding. But it might mean working after 10 pm.
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.
Photographs by Joanna Carey.
(published in Red Fox paperback at £5.99 unless otherwise mentioned)
The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, 978 0 09 947576 7
Biscuit Bear, 978 0 09 945108 2
Egg Drop, 978 0 09 943203 6
The Pea and the Princess, 978 0 09 943233 3
Traction Man is Here, 978 0 09 945109 9
Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog (Jonathan Cape, 978 0 224 07048 5, £10.99 hbk) is due to be published in October 2008.